However you define the term ‘historical novel’, there can be few things more daunting than being asked to write about events which you yourself don’t remember, but which other people do. This was the position I was put in when I was commissioned to write a series of novels set during the Second World War.
When my agent set up a meeting to discuss the project, the publisher’s first words to me were, ‘Oh dear, I didn’t realize you were so young.’
Obviously this was a matter of opinion! Nevertheless the implication was that she had hoped for a writer with at very least a few childhood recollections of cowering in an Anderson shelter in the back garden while Nazi bombs whistled overhead.
Clearly this was not the case with me, but I was reluctant to be defeated at the first post by the trifling problem of my age: ‘Goodness,’ I said. ‘There’s so much material available about the Second World War. I can easily research it.’
And so the Lavender Road series was born. I would write six books, roughly one for each year of the war, and they would follow the lives of some fictional characters, mainly young women, living on one ordinary south London street. Society changed a lot during the war, and as well as writing what I hoped would be six warm, exciting and engaging stories, I wanted to demonstrate the amazing courage and resilience that so many women showed in different ways during those six turbulent years.
It sounded easy enough. But within a few weeks I found myself completely immersed in published (and unpublished) histories, diaries and letters. I visited museums, local history libraries and themed wartime ‘attractions’. I studied official reports and watched endless film footage and BBC documentaries. And of course I trawled the bottomless pit of the internet! What I hadn’t quite appreciated was exactly how much research material there actually was!
And that made my job even more difficult. My overriding aim in my writing is to entertain, and although I wanted my stories to be historically accurate, I also didn’t want to bore people with too much unnecessary information. There has been so much written about the Second World War, and so many films set in that era that people have become very familiar with it, so I decided to try to focus on less well known aspects of wartime life, rather than the usual round of rationing and bombs (although they obviously feature too!)
One of the ways of doing that was to move parts of the stories away from London, and in ON A WING AND A PRAYER, and in the latest in the series, LONDON CALLING, I was able to add an extra dimension by sending a couple of my young female characters into occupied Europe, which also gave the opportunity for a bit of a thriller element too.
I love doing the research. It is such a great feeling to discover a hidden nugget of information that sparks the idea for a story strand. What I soon realised was that there were lots of fascinating things that seemed to have been overlooked by other writers and film makers. And that gave me some great opportunities for interesting plot lines.
But what there aren’t so many of now, sadly, are real live people who remember those eventful years. And it is people’s memories that I have always found the most interesting element of my research. Yes, historical records are great, but nothing compares with someone telling you at first hand what it was like to be caught in an underground station when a bomb severed the water main, or to crawl through the cellars of a collapsed building searching for a trapped child, or to take a tiny riverboat over to rescue trapped soldiers at Dunkirk, or to be parachuted into occupied France. And it’s not just the big events, it’s the small memories too, Americans soldiers sticking their chewing gum on the door of a hospital ward while they visited injured colleagues, a precious pound of sugar carried in a tin helmet, the terror of a war office telegram, the delight in a fresh egg.
As part of my research for LONDON CALLING, I interviewed a ninety year old doctor called Antony who as a young medical student had visited the laboratory in Oxford where the first usable penicillin was developed. He told me that due to the wartime lack of metal containers, Professor Florey and his scientists had resorted to using hospital bedpans to grow the cultures in, there simply wasn’t anything else available!
Later on in our chat, Antony casually let slip that in 1941, when he was on the way to America, his ship was torpedoed at night crossing the Atlantic and he spent several hours tossing about in the dark on a makeshift raft in his dressing gown and slippers, waiting to be rescued.
That is one of the odd things about the war years, people who lived through it often look back as though it was all quite ordinary. But it wasn’t, it was extraordinary, and it forced people to do extraordinary things. That’s what makes it such a fascinating period to write about. At the very least it is a way of preserving some of those precious personal memories.
Helen Carey’s latest novel, LONDON CALLING, published by Headline, is available in all good bookshops or from Amazon.
For details of Helen Carey’s books visit her website at http://www.helencareybooks.co.uk
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